Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Google, Amex, UpTake Point To An Opportunity for Travel Agents

Research from Google, Uptake.com and TIA/American Express makes me feel that traditional travel agencies, namely those we sometimes refer to as off-line agencies, can seize an opportunity in all of the complexity in online trip-planning.

Sure, airline commissions are gone, the Web and the marketing clout of online travel agencies have helped put traditional agencies under tremendous pressure, but there are business opportunities for agencies that engage consumers in new ways and take advantage of the pain-in-the butt that online-travel planning has become.

Consider this:

In a presentation at the recent TravelCom conference in Atlanta, Rob Torres, Google's managing director for travel, said Google research found that travelers spend 6.7 weeks searching for trips and they visit 8.1 websites on average before booking.

And trip-planning site TravelMuse recently cited statistics from UpTake.com that consumers visit 25 websites on average "when planning a single vacation."

TravelMuse also cited an August 2008 study by TIA and American Express which found that 20 percent of travelers put in more than 10 hours of online-travel planning in researching their trips.

Who has that kind of time?

It's a jungle out there, whether it is researching a safari vacation or any other kind of getaway.

When researching a trip, consumers looking for deals have to wade through search engines, metasearch sites, supplier-direct websites, consolidators' offerings, opaque auction sites, online travel agency sites, trip-planning sites and hotel-review sites in a prolonged and confusing trip-research process.

It all reminds me of Priceline CEO Jeffery Boyd's appearance at a PhoCusWright conference in
2004 when he facetiously called for the formation of a new website, which he dubbed FarePile.com, to aggregate the offerings of metasearch aggregators like Kayak, SideStep, FareChase and Mobissimo.

And, the complexity of the trip-planning process isn't getting any easier with the advent of ancillary services and sometimes-hidden fees for checked bags, premium seats and lounge access.

In contrast, I emailed a traditional travel agency the other day about a trip to Israel, and the agency emailed me back letting me know that I could fly out of Newark and return to JFK for $897 on El Al, or I could take Austrian Airlines out of JFK with a stop in Vienna for around $777.

Simple as that. It probably would have taken me hours of frustrating searches and price comparisons to find these fares on my own. And, that's even before considering lodging choices and a car rental.

So travel agents have an opportunity if they can better market themselves as experts, traveler advocates and simplifiers of the trip-planning process.

Will they do it in new and creative ways?

Most probably won't, but the smart ones will. I see plenty of travel agencies promoting themselves and getting involved with consumers on Twitter and Facebook.

For example, here's an unofficial list, managed by Matt Parsons in London, of "the travel industry on Twitter."

I wrote about one way that travel companies might get involved in social media through A Twitter Summer Travel Stimulus Package.

That's the key. If travel agents want to tap into new audiences, then they have to frequent social media sites where the online bookers are.

Otherwise, with the trip-planning process getting more complex by the minute, we'll have to renew Boyd's call for the ultimate aggregation site, FarePile.com.


Julie Sturgeon said...

I'm a travel agent and you've described my job to a T. We are travel researchers, consumer advocates and price negotiators -- and since it's at no charge to the consumer, why not call a travel agent?! I just put 20 hours into a custom vacation in London/Edniburgh for a family this summer -- we poured through everything from whether the accommodations have elevators to the possibility of using frequent flyer points donated by other family members. This family will enjoy a vacation at less than the price they budgeted -- and they saved themselve 20 hours of tedium.

Douglas Quinby said...

Your points are well established, especially for more complex leisure. 70% of tour operator sales and 74% of cruises booked through traditional travel agents in 2008.

Just an added thought: for many of the best travel agents today, their real value is in their client lists and their ability to leverage that (relationship market). Which makes social networking such ripe territory for travel agents. I also wonder if there is a bit of a leveling of the playing field here, because smaller agencies have a tremendous opportunity to build on existing relationships - creating real value or a sense of intimacy - in ways large travel brands with millions of customers may not be able to do. It's as if Facebook was made for travel agents and small business.

Dennis Schaal said...

Douglas: You make a great point about a leveling of the playing field. I see it everyday on Twitter. Small agencies have the same amps in their tweets that large agencies do. Yes, large agencies attract more followers because of brand recognition. But, if smaller agencies use Twitter and other social media skillfully, if their tweets are not overt marketing 24/7, if they mix it up a bit and really strike up two-way conversations with their customers -- or prospective clients -- then smaller agencies really can make some inroads. And, some of them really "get it" and are tweeting up a storm.

Martin said...

Thanks for the link to the Google stats, as I'd never seen them before. I've been thinking a bit lately about the inspiration and research phase prior to booking, so your timing is perfect.

Dennis Schaal said...

Martin: No prob. I guess a lot of people these days are thinking about the research and inspiration process. TravelMuse has its off-beat answer with its Yaycations Calculator. Check it out. http://bit.ly/PPYFt You know, figure out how much you'd save if you stopped shopping at Tiffany for a year, and then turn that savings into an inspired vacation. No one in the online world wants to be a mere transaction-processor anymore. Now, if the Google stats you mention inspire you to continue with your brainstorming about travel inspiration, then we're all set:)